Fewer homeless students in Federal Way: Is that good? | State numbers increase during recession

The amount of homeless students attending public schools in Washington has increased by almost 8,000 since 2005. Federal Way’s homeless student body, meanwhile, has decreased by 28 percent since the 2006-07 school year — and that may not be good.

The total number of homeless students in Federal Way from the 2009-2010 school year was 286, compared to 291 during the 2008-09 school year. That’s down from 400 in the 2006-07 school year, according to figures from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The total amount of homeless students in Washington has increased from 13,942 in 2005 to 21,826 during the 2009-2010 school year. The state released the latest numbers Dec. 23, a requirement under the federal McKinney-Vento act, which ensures homeless students equal access to public education.

“There are a lot of factors that could explain the increase,” said Melinda Dyer, the state’s supervisor for the education of homeless children, in a press release. “The biggest is probably more awareness. Five years ago, many districts didn’t know that this was a requirement. We’re seeing better reporting now than we did then.”

A drop in the amount of homeless students may indicate that they’re not all being reached.

The fact that Federal Way’s numbers are decreasing is more alarming because it occurred during a hard recession. And the number of students eligible for free and reduced meals, an indicator of poverty, went from 28 percent of all students in 2005-06 to 47 percent in 2009-10, according to state data.

Looking at Federal Way’s downward trend, attorney and McKinney-Vento advocate Casey Trupin is not optimistic.

“It’s pretty concerning to have a drop that significant in a time of such economic crisis,” said Trupin, an attorney at Seattle’s Columbia Legal Services. “And in light of the fact that state numbers have gone way, way up in the same time.”

Trupin keeps track of districts doing a good job with McKinney-Vento. He pointed to Tacoma, which puts a lot of effort into creating housing for homeless students and their families. Tacoma happens to have the highest population of homeless students in the state, according to the 2009-10 count at 1,194.

According to McKinney-Vento, schools must also pay for transportation for students and keep them enrolled, if they choose, in their “district of origin” — where they were attending school when the homelessness occurred.

Homeless liaisons

Each school district is required to have a homeless liaison. In Federal Way, that’s Vicki Thivener and Cindy Wendland, who pull double duty working in the district’s transportation department.

The liaison job has changed several hands over the years. Wendland and Thivener took over in September 2009. They say their dual role as transportation administrators and liaisons is a good fit.

A school bus driver is “a student’s first contact in the morning and the last contact at night,” Thivener said. A main component of McKinney-Vento is student transportation, and the transportation department can better plan these routes. Bus drivers are trained to recognize possible homeless students, Wendland and Thivener said. Wendland relayed a story that the district this year was able to serve a 4-year-old preschooler, who was in his fifth foster home, after he was spotted by a bus driver.

The state classifies homelessness in several ways: a student and family living “doubled up” with another family or friends; a family living in a hotel or motel; students living in homeless shelters; and students living unsheltered, on the street.

According to OSPI data, in 2009-10, most homeless students attending Federal Way were living in shelters (97) or doubled-up (147). Fourth grade and kindergarten had the highest number of homeless students at 28 each.

There’s also a money element to McKinney-Vento. Transporting homeless students is an “unfunded mandate,” Thivener said. But they maintain their first duty is to serve these students.

“We’re here to educate every student,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have to work with.”

According to figures supplied by Trupin, Federal Way spent about $4,000 each school year between 2006 and 2008; $1,600 in 2008-09; and so far $50 in 2009-10 (the figures were from January 2010) on McKinney-Vento-related costs.

Wendland later provided information that the district spent $324,620 on McKinney-Vento activities during the 2009-10 school year.

Trupin said some districts balk at the cost of McKinney-Vento.

“There’s no question there is push back in some school districts over money,” he said, speaking in general. “It’s absolutely taking place. We see liaisons not properly supported by administrators because of the cost issue. We see less than intensive efforts to identify students because with the identification can come a cost.”

It’s not always intentional. Some districts simply need better training or organization. He said districts can do an “adequate job” of enforcing the law by training staff from attendance officers to teachers to coaches. Schools also need to do outreach, targeting churches and other community beacons.

“A disclosure about homelessness could come in multiple forms,” he said.

Local outreach

Thivener and Wendland said new Federal Way schools’ staff are trained yearly. Last year, they created a manual on McKinney-Vento. The training is a two-hour session that includes a PowerPoint presentation, reading of the manual, and perhaps a speaker from OSPI.

Wendland said that the district does community outreach. She said fliers are posted in places like laundromats and are given to church youth group leaders. Some outreach is done at shelters and the Multi-Service Center.

Wendland and Thivener could not provide a direct explanation about the decline in homeless students. They say they saw an increase in the number of students being served as of Dec. 31, 2010, over Dec. 31, 2009: 130 to 161 in 2010. They also said that the state changed the reporting date from June to October during the 2008-09 school year.

Wendland said that the during the 2005-06 school year, the district counted 257 homeless students. She attributed the jump to 400 homeless students during the 2007-07 school year to an influx of families affected by Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in August, 2005.

They also point to successes under their leadership. Last summer, they ran a program to feed and educate homeless students using federal stimulus money. With that money almost gone, they want to continue it next summer using Title 1 funding.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the kids,” Wendland said. “We’ve been able to train our drivers, and our drivers watch out for some of our kids.”

“It’s really about what these kids can do,” Thivener said. “It frees up the schools to do what they do best and that’s education. We’re pretty passionate over here about our kids.”

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